Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont, in a State of the State address devoted to what he called a “heroin crisis,” urged the state to address addiction “as a public health crisis, providing treatment and support, rather than simply doling out punishment, claiming victory and moving onto our next conviction.” Public officials throughout rural America, even law-and-order types, have echoed these sentiments.
But how did rural drug problems come to inspire compassion rather than contempt? Mind you, I support this enlightened approached. But, let’s be clear, “rural” means we’re talking about white folks.
Can you imagine Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, at the height of the so-called crack epidemic, urging Alabamians to try crack as a health crisis? Even northern liberals, back then, were calling for life sentences for anyone caught selling crack cocaine.
The disdain expressed toward those who used or sold crack was intense and the racialization of the issue was lost on no one.
An astonishing 85 percent of those sentenced for crack cocaine offenses at federal level were black, even though the majority of users of the drug were white.
In light of our approach to past urban drug problems, forgive my tempered enthusiasm for the epiphanies of rural public officials.
”To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious,” James Baldwin once said, “is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
Nonetheless, we need to move the focus from the drug that is used to the person who is using it.
No drug is inherently more evil than the other and the overwhelming majority of drug users do not become addicted.
This shows that the drugs themselves are not the problem.
People become addicted for a variety of reasons ranging from psychiatric disorders to economic desperation. That is why it is, first, critically important to determine the reasons underlying each person’s addiction before intervening with half-baked solutions.
1) If a person is using heroin to deal with anxiety or trauma, effective treatment of the psychiatric illness should alleviate the need to use heroin.
2) Similarly, providing destitute addicts with specific skills and viable economic opportunities will go a long way in helping them to overcome their drug addiction.
A lesson here is that one shoe doesn’t fit all and that careful assessment is an important component in helping addicts.
If more people were aware of these points, it would help us be more ethical and decent people.
When we defer to the evidence and not hysteria, compassion can be extended to all of our citizens alike regardless of whether they live in cities or out in the country, whether they are black or white, or whether they use marijuana or heroin.
Originally posted in New York Times